Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday in Rome, I partook in a walking tour of the city’s Esquilino neighborhood. The area is noteworthy for many reasons; amongst its most well known attributes are Rome’s Termini Station and, across the space, Piazza Vittoro Emanuele II. These are the landmarks I want to highlight today, as I think they carry a lot of weight in the context of the area, and offer insight into some of its complexities.
We started our tour at Termini Station, in great tribute to the many before and many after us who started their journey into the great city from this spot. Our guide and professor at Temple Rome, Lorenzo Rinelli, explained to us of the details of the construction of the neighborhood. When Rome became the capital of a newly unified Italy, bureaucratic workers from the Northern Italy and laborers from the South surged through Termini and began to build Esquilino. Despite Roman weather patterns differing drastically from those in the former capital, Turin, buildings were constructed to be conducive the Piedmont region’s heavy rains. At the forefront, this had my mind wandering on the tour– to the idea of tradition (and the necessity to sometimes break away) and to context (and the valuable role it plays in understanding something).
The rest of the neighborhood was a beautiful manifestation of this insurgence. Colorful murals depicting different cultures and languages appeared on the walls of old buildings, restaurants boasted a seemingly infinite variety of Italian and non-Italian options, and the local market burst with flavors and ingredients from all over the World. On another part of the tour, we stopped in front of Piazza Vittoro Emanuele II. The space is currently under construction and this is part of an ongoing effort by the city to refurbish the neighborhood, the intentions of which seem questionable; i.e. it appears as an effort to gentrify this area, but that is a different article altogether. What struck me about our stop here was a “magic portal” mentioned by Lorenzo. This is a well known spot in Rome because of a door tied to Alchemy in the 1600s. I found it incredibly apt that this doorway existed because in many ways Termini seems, too, a doorway of sorts. It was a portal to the outside world, and this world has begun to seep in. Much like Alchemy, a stone’s throw from the Catholic Church, tradition and order are being critically questioned by this opening.
Rome in itself is vast. I worry often that even in my 4 months here I will not have the time to engage with it all meaningfully. And Termini has become this new portal, and this neighborhood shows it; makes it feel even bigger than before. These old buildings, constructed in northern style by southern migrants, and now home to many more migrants’ businesses, are a stoic representation of the spiraling nature of change, continuing and expanding and absorbing under our very noses.