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A ProgBlog guide to Rome

I’d been to Rome a couple of times before 2017’s Progressivamente Free Festival, in August 1980 by InterRail as a student and in 2006 as a break between annual visits to Venice with the family. My memories of that first visit include my first ever espresso in a bar, possibly Bar Tassoni, somewhere along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II; being denied admission to St Peter’s because I was wearing shorts and having to run back to the pensione on the Piazza di San Pantaleo to put on a pair of jeans; the hypocrisy of nuns selling religious tat outside St Peter’s; the watermelon stalls at the Circo Massimo; the lack of care shown to the ruins, with rogue vegetation everywhere; and the feeling that two days was insufficient to take everything in. The family visit in 2006 was a ten night stay, also in the heat of August, based at the Hotel Novecento in the Lateran area, very handy for the Colosseum and close to the Manzoni metro station. My wife and son hadn’t been to the Eternal City before so I was prepared to go over some familiar ground but we also fitted in essential experiences that were off-limits due to time constraints in 1980, including braving the queues for both the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon. Ten days gave us the opportunity to recreate another trip from 1980 when Rome was used as a base for a day trip to Pompeii, a destination included on the original itinerary because of its association with Pink Floyd and remarkably, despite the 26 years between visits, where the weather and mass of humanity crammed onto the Rome-Naples train were near identical. Other new experiences included a day walking the via Appia Antica and an outdoor screening of Wallace and Gromit and the curse of the Were Rabbit at the Vittorio Emmanuel International film festival. This had been released the previous year and was possibly even funnier in Italian.

Colosseum, 27th August 1980


Colosseum, 6th August 2006


Colosseum, 28th September 2017


I really like the city; I know it’s dirty and graffiti-riddled and unbearably hot in summer but the history of the place trumps the traffic, the tourists and the smoking and though there’s a rush on the streets, the pace of life slows when you sit in a bar or a restaurant. The second visit coincided with the early stages of my (ongoing) passion for collecting progressivo italiano, begun on a trip to Venice in 2005 when I first deliberately looked for classic Italian prog on CD to add to my original vinyl from the 70s: PFM’s The World Became the World (1974), Cook (1974) and Jet Lag (1977). On the 2006 trip I only managed to buy CDs in one shop, the Feltrinelli store in the Galleria Alberto Sordi where we’d stopped at the café to grab a bite to eat. My diary doesn’t say what music I invested in but I’m pretty sure that I picked up PFM’s Per un Amico (1972), the Italian version of Cook, called Live in the USA (1974) and a compilation of early Le Orme material, Gioco di Bimba e Altri Successi (released in 1998) and a 1991 re-recording of Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. I was also tempted by PFM’s Dracula – Opera Rock (2005) but thought I’d do some research before committing to buying it, the only time I’ve ever seen the CD in a shop, my longbox 2xCD copy was later bought using eBay in 2018. The slightly smaller branch of La Feltrinelli on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II was worth a visit too, because that’s where I bought Jonathan Coe’s progressive rock-related tale of adolescence The Rotters’ Club in the English Language section.

The first morning of the 2017 Rome adventure was devoted to a three and a half hour archaeological tour of three early churches: San Clemente was founded in the 4th Century but Luca, our tour guide and one of the archaeologists who had worked on the site explained how the original building was contemporary with the Colosseum nearby and had served as the Roman imperial mint, before being converted to a residence with a pagan temple in the basement and then a place of clandestine Christian worship in the first century AD; the second stop was the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, another 4th Century church built over houses where roman soldiers John and Paul were martyred during the rule of Emperor Julian and hidden beneath the stairs. Underneath the basilica which was damaged during the Visigoth sack of Rome, damaged by earthquake and sacked again by the Normans, there are a series of decorated rooms (now the Case Romane del Celio museum) which comprise one of the best preserved Roman-era housing complexes. Originally a variety of building types from different periods, including an apartment block for artisans (an insula) and the dwelling of a wealthy individual which was subsequently converted into an early Christian church, the different buildings were combined sometime during the third century AD to form one elegant pagan house where it’s possible to identify the staircase where the bodies of the two soldiers were hidden after their murder; the third stop was a church founded in the sixth century, San Nicola in Carcere, which is interesting because of its former pagan history. There is evidence of utilising the extant temples on either side of the site and other repurposed building material to form the church. These layers of history can be seen by descending a set of stairs from the main body of the church, giving access to the excavation of the temple remains. The trek to the last church on the tour included a refreshment break where we had a decent coffee but we quickly discovered that the best coffee was from Grab & Go opposite platform 22 at Termini where they served Lavazza.


The archaeological and architectural delights visited over six days were actually secondary to the other purpose of the visit, the 25th Progressivamente Free Festival (see https://www.progblog.co.uk/gig-reviews/25th-progressivamente-free-festival%2C-jailbreak-club%2C-roma) though the first stop after dropping off our luggage at our hotel was a visit to the excellent Elastic Rock record shop (Viale dei Quattro Venti, 237/239) where I bought reissues of four classic progressivo Italiano LPs, the self-titled Buon Vecchio Charlie LP (1990), Juri Camisasca’s La Finestra Dentro (1974), Samadhi by Samadhi (1974), and Gudrun by Pierrot Lunaire (1977), and a pre-loved Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited CD. I’d been told about Elastic Rock by a visiting surgeon when I worked in the Clinical Transplantation Laboratory at Guy’s Hospital. He was good enough to chat about progressivo italiano with me and when he took a weekend break at home, he brought me back copies of Principe di un Giorno (1976) by Celeste and Zarathustra (1973) by Museo Rosenbach. I also popped into Millerecords (Via Merulana, 91) and had a good browse but didn’t manage to find anything to add to my record collection.

Elastic Rock


Millerecords


Progressivamente’s evening performances mean that my wife and were able to see more of Rome and environs than we’d previously managed. We took a trip out to the EUR district because I was fascinated by the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, admiring its Rationalist architecture while simultaneously repulsed by the Fascist ideology that led to its construction. EUR is now an administrative centre, where the wide boulevards and ugly, oversized neoclassical edifices could have been transplanted from Washington DC. By chance we’d visited at the weekend so we could also wander around the Mercatino di Palombini street market which happened to have a stall selling vinyl, so I duly proffered €5 for a copy of the Premiata Forneria Marconi Super Star compilation album from 1982.

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana


Ostia Antica had been on the list of destinations on our last visit but the train we were due to catch from Piramide/Ostiense was old and crowded, worse than a rush hour commute on the Southern network in the UK, so we deferred until the 2017 trip. The train was busy but not too many people got off with us, most likely heading for Roma-Lido at the end of the line, a journey we’d undertake later in the week and end up disappointed because we couldn’t find any free access to the beach. On the other hand, Ostia Antica is a huge archaeological site which appeared rather empty for somewhere so impressive.

Ostia Antica


The opening act at the prog festival was La Bocca della Verità, who began their career in Rome in 2001 performing cover versions of UK and Italian prog but later concentrated on original material. They took their name ‘the Mouth of Truth’ from a marble drain cover which may date back to before the 4th Century BC, imprinted with the image of a man’s face and with openings for eyes, nostrils and mouth. We’d visited this particular tourist attraction in 2006, mounted on the wall of the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (in the Aventine district) where it’s been reinvented as a medieval lie-detector, with the mouth closing down on the hand of liars. They were one of the bands I was seeing for the first time, playing portions of their first album Avenoth (2016), a heavy symphonic prog suite lasting nearly 78 minutes which I bought from the merchandise stand, along with In Hoc Signo, the 2013 debut from Ingranaggi della Valle who were also playing that evening.

La Bocca della Verità


La Bocca della Verità, Progressivamente Free Festival 27th September 2017


The other novel acts I watched over the next four nights were Bologna’s Accordo dei Contrari playing some tight, impressive but challenging jazz rock; Flea on the Etna who originated in Sicily as Flea on the Honey but decamped to Rome and released a self-titled album in 1971, became Flea for their second album Topi o Uomini (1972) before taking a break while bass player Elio Volpini formed L’Uovo di Colombo, then re-formed as Etna for one eponymous album in 1975, and as Flea on the Etna played Mediterranean-influenced jazz-rock; Jenny Sorrenti and Gianni Nocenzi in a supergroup billed as ‘Italia 70’ playing classic progressivo italiano hits by PFM, BMS and others; Semiramis, who I considered to be the highlight of the festival having paid £20 for a second-hand copy of their only album Dedicato a Frazz (1973) on CD in 2009 and been totally astounded by the music; and Biglietto per l’Inferno, who have evolved into a prog-folk band from their heavy prog beginnings.


Semiramis, Progressivamente Free Festival 30th September 2017


I’d seen Ingranaggi della Valle, CAP with Alvaro Fella and La Coscienza di Zeno before, but that didn’t detract from what was really a fantastic bill. I even managed to add two more albums to my collection on the final night, picking up the Biglietto per l’Inferno LP Vivi. Lotta. Pensa (2015) and the 2016 limited edition vinyl La Notte Anche Di Giorno by La Coscienza di Zeno. And though I’d booked my hotel before I was aware that the festival venue had changed, it wouldn’t have affected journey time too much as I’d still have had to change Metro lines if the event had been held at Planet Live Club. I actually missed part of the last performance on each night apart from Friday and Saturday when the Metro has extended hours, just to ensure I could catch a train back to the hotel with a change at Termini, but apart from Metro tickets, the only cost each night was for drinks from the bar.

Biglietto per l'Inferno, Progressivamente Free Festival 1st October 2017


I can understand why some people aren’t great fans of the city, as there are plenty of things to be concerned about, not least the unreliability of public transport, but I’d go back any time, especially if there’s a prog gig that I need to attend.


The bulk of this blog has been sourced from ‘Roman Holiday’, originally posted on 25th September 2017 and ‘Eternal City’ posted on 16th October 2017, both no longer available on the internet. I’d like to thank everyone who engaged me in conversation about progressivo italiano, invariably in English, during the 2017 Progressivamente Free Festival and also when buying records. The friendliness and hospitality I’ve encountered on my three trips to Rome are part of the reason I’m so fond of the city.

Special thanks go to Vincenzo Praturlon for sharing his knowledge.


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