Do Rome and Philadelphia have anything in common?
Initially, the question seems almost laughable; after spending two weeks in Rome, I can still make the argument that Italy feels like a completely different world. That feeling was especially strong walking into Saint Peter’s Basilica, an extravagant edifice with a sprawling length of 186 meters—over twice as long as any American football field. The interior of the church is coated thoroughly in shimmering Baroque mosaics and immense statues, with a domed ceiling caked in intricate portraits and dazzling bronze and gold geometric designs. So many details make the experience absolutely surreal—the natural sunlight that floods through the basilica in soft streams, the Pietà sculpture crafted by a young Michelangelo, the feeling of gazing from the marbled floors to the top of the dome at hundreds of feet of careful artwork. The current Basilica was completed in 1626 after more than 100 years of construction, but the Old Basilica (which became damaged and was therefore rebuilt) dates back to Constantine’s reign over ancient Rome during the 300s C.E. And that’s something you don’t see every day in Philadelphia. Really, it’s something you don’t see at all.
But there’s one similarity between Rome and Philadelphia, and that is the simple and obvious fact that they’re both cities. They share undeniably urban characteristics, like the quick-moving metro system with orange and blue routes reminiscent of the Broad Street Line and the El. Another mark of a city is the bold, enigmatic, and sometimes vulgar artwork displayed not within the walls of a museum or gallery, but outside the walls of buildings. Graffiti, murals, and street art, staples of inner-city Philadelphia, are equally if not more prominent in the city of Rome. It looms on either side of the Tiber, shrinking those who jog or bike along the river, and it peeks out behind curtains of flowers in swirling, brightly-colored tags and phrases.
Like Rome itself, the art of graffiti stretches back thousands of years. The actual word derives from the singular Italian word, “graffito,” or “a scratch.” Originally, the term was used to describe the preserved etchings in the walls and grounds of Pompeii. Inhabitants decorated the Ancient Roman town with crude images and explicit phrases well before Mount Vesuvius destroyed the town in 79 C.E. A common phrase you can find there is “Felicter Pompeii,” a phrase for wishing the city and its people good fortune. Faded graffiti dating back to the first century can be found in the walls of the Colosseum, although it has since been covered in centuries of markings from travelers around the world.
Walking around Rome today, it’s difficult not to encounter modern graffiti and stunning street art. Several blocks away from the Vatican wall, an eye-catching mural of the Pope displays the phrase “Petrus Romanus,” or “Peter the Roman,” a phrase that refers to the theory that there will be a last pope. Far away, on the other side of the Tiber, a tucked away wall displays a portrait of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a politically controversial film director who was murdered in the 1970s. Mere kilometers away from Rome, on the Mediterranean coast, a house on the beach displays graffiti that speaks in Portuguese instead of Italian, asking for “more love, please.” Whether it’s modern or ancient, and whether it’s in Italy or the states, exploring the meaning and stories behind graffiti is always insightful: it reflects, in a way, the true voice of a city.