Say the words “Roman art,” and your average listener will likely think of classical statues, ornate churches and the masterworks of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. But to a select, but growing, few, that phrase summons something more contemporary: a growing body of street and graffiti art that has recently blossomed across the Eternal City.
The explosion has been sudden and noticeable, especially in the Ostiense neighborhood just outside the Aurelian Walls, where local support has transformed the former industrial area into a haven for muralists and poster artists. “When we were putting up the first works, they were looking at us like we were crazy,” says Francesco Dobrovich, project manger at NUfactory, a creative agency that has served as a broker between artists, local authorities and building owners. The boom has been fueled, at least in part, by the yearly Outdoor Festival, organized by NUfactory. Dedicated to street art, it attracts artists from across the continent. On the neighborhood’s major arterial the young Spanish artist Borondo has covered a gay cultural center with figures that seem to rise out of the neighborhood’s characteristic grime. On a side street, the windows of an apartment building have been painted into eerily empty eyes by the Bolognese artist Blu. On a wall outside a disco, the two-man RO.BO.COOP has pasted a remix of Sandro Bottocelli’s “Allegory of Spring,” in which all the figures in the Renaissance masterpiece are wearing surgical masks.
Rome has a long history with graffiti. The word, which is Italian, was coined in the 1850s to describe scrawls scratched on the walls of ancient Pompeii. But until recently, the dominant conversation in Rome about graffiti was how to get rid of it. Volunteers teamed up with municipal workers to paint over or erase the tags and scrawls that defaced many of the city’s walls and sidewalks. In the realm of art, the city’s establishment was focused on past glories, making the Italian capital one of the more culturally conservative cities in Europe. In 2008 the mayor’s campaign platform included a promise to uproot one of the only pieces of modern architecture in the historic center — the Ara Pacis Museum, designed by the American neoclassical architect Richard Meier (the two men later struck a compromise, in which part of the structure was redesigned).
Since the late 1990s, while street art rose and became accepted in many other European cities — the British artist, Banksy, became the face of street art in the broader world of contemporary art — in Rome it was confined to the counterculture, its practitioners incubated in abandoned government buildings occupied by local activists. “In Rome, the underground has always been hot,” says Marta Gargiulo, a curator at the Varsi Gallery in central Rome. Gargiulo says that street art provides an outlet for young artists who are largely ignored by established galleries. “It allows you to express yourself without having to ask permission from anybody,” says one of the 20-year-old members of RO.BO.COOP. (Like Banksy, most street artists hide their identities – partly to increase the sense of mystery surrounding them, and partly to avoid unwanted attention from the police.)
If there’s a characteristic common to most of the artists working in Rome, it’s a focus on technical skill, says omino71, a veteran of the city’s graffiti scene. The city has a strong fine arts academy, and that feeds the local talent pool. “Street art is almost closer to classical art than contemporary art,” he says. “It’s colorful. It’s representative. Contemporary art, from Duchamp on, is more conceptual.” Unlike street art in the United States or Britain, the focus is less on the message and more on the image. “In Rome, you’ll see a lot of figurative art,” says Jessica Stewart, an art historian and photographer who has been documenting the city’s street culture on her blog, romephotoblog.com. She is the manger of Alice Pasquini, one of the city’s better known street artists. “It’s less abstract, less geometrical, subconsciously or not, because of the amount of classical art there is in the city.”
Indeed, in many cases, the Eternal City serves its artists not just as their canvas but as their subject. JB Rock, a graffiti artist who will be performing in the Venice Biennial in November, has appropriated the geometrical rosette Michelangelo designed for the Capitoline Hill, using it as a background for a drawing of a man in gas mask. Diamond, an artist whose exhibit opened June 6 in Gargiulo’s Varsi Gallery, has drawn Rome’s Piazza Navona in the background of one of his works. And omino71 has created a whole opus based on Byzantine style iconography, a conscious riff on Rome’s tradition of sacred art, from the earliest works found in its early Christian catacombs. “It was the idea of dialogue with the history of Rome, with our neighborhoods,” he says. It’s a conversation the city would be wise to nurture.