the Belly Button of Rome: Porta Maggiore (english version) Plus exclusive missing images

cover book_5649Rome: Nome Plurale di Città. Edited by Giorgio De Finis and Fabio Benincasa.

Rome, Bordeaux Publication, 2016. (not illustrated) “L’Unico modo per comprendere l’impasse che caratterizza Roma è cominciare a leggere come un piano la mancanza dei piani. La vera questione è capire perché il malgoverno sia diventato l’unico forma possibile di governo della città e del Paese.”

The book is published in Italian and includes texts by: Livia Claudia Bazu, Francesco Careri, Anna di Fazio Siciliano, Giorgio De Finis, Paolo di Vetta, Pablo Echaurren, Hu Lanbo, Alberto Iacovoni, Carlo Infante, Amara Lakhous, Peter Lang, Stefano Mancini, Piero Meogrossi, Nora Moll, Bernardo Notagiacomo, Marco Pacioni, Carlo Prati, Luigi Prestinenza Pugliese, Lorenzo Romito, Antonino Saggio, Stefano Simoncini, Ylenia Simoncini, Gian Maria Tosatti, Luisa Valeriani, (and more).

For my essay, Circus Magis, L’ombelico profondo di Roma (the Magic Circle: the deep belly button of Rome, Porta Maggiore) the english version is included below.

Bonus Feature: illustrations that were not included in the original Italian version.

p maggiore panorama s IMG_4814

Ombelico di Roma:  Porta Maggiore

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Piazza Porta Maggiore may be one of the most disabling, if not destabilizing places to visit in Rome. Like a black hole, moving in dizzying counter clockwise rotation, this constantly morphing, disordered urban landmark and traffic round-about is held together by fragments of lead plumbing, cement arches and stone porticos. Porta Maggiore is majestically framed by the gradually collapsing Aurelian Wall, and split in two by the ancient Labicana –now Casilina, and Prenestina roads. The Piazza’s surface area is immense, nearly 200 meters at its widest diameter—twice the reach of the Place Charles De Gaulle where the Arc de Triomphe stands in Paris. The gates are straddled from above by the Roman aqueducts, the Acqua Claudia and the Anio Novus, and bordered on one side by the raised track lines of the ferrovia dello Stato. Framing this rotary is, in the distance, the elevated Tangenziale, whose acrophobic flyways cross over the tram and train yards.

porta maggiore aerial trans col 2x


Piazza Porta Maggiore is an incongruent collection of historical detritus bringing together artifacts and various fauna from the farthest corners of this hemisphere. Scattered around in no particular order are street lamps, train tracks, tramlines, a network of electric power lines, trash, broken down cars, polluting buses, parked food trucks, rag markets, fenced off corners and stone benches. If you consider the living within this degraded eco-system, you can count on the pigeons, cats, stray dogs, and rats…but also human commuters rushing to change from one mezzo to another, the homeless tucked under the overgrown hedges, refugees pacing up and down avoiding eye contact, ATAC maintenance men, nighttime prostitutes, garbage pickers and out of town thrill seekers. You can still sense when Carthagians faced Romans, when proletarian freedmen built tombs of great magnificence, factory workers marched in protest and squatters occupied the very same industrial spaces not long after. You might still catch the specter of Pasolini turning on his heels, pacing through the arches on his way to one of his many haunts around the Mandrione.

porta maggiore PTL 1bs

Everything gets caught in this infernal roundabout. Its as if time stands still. You don’t have to look hard to recognize the 9 circles of Hell, Dante’s exquisitely poetic descending landscape where the most wretched on earth suffered endless tortures without any chance of redemption. For those obliged to cut through this part of the city its like a trap, easily becoming psychologically crippling, a sort of Maggiore complex. It is experienced as a gradually increasing sense of angst, especially when the trams derail or otherwise traffic stops and the endless gyrations halt, stopping time, creating a pool of stranded desires and fears. Everything around the circle is stuck, motionless, as if Rome just halted. Only the low-cost airlines continue to circle above like vultures ready for the feast.

porta maggiore PTLs

Nothing short of unscrewing Piazza Porta Maggiore from its broken landscape would really begin to correct the centuries of aggregated damage and decadence done to its surroundings. But it would be counterproductive to simply terminate this incredible colossus of a roundabout in the hopes of making an improved traffic juncture, just as it would be pointless to renovate the surroundings like some kind of gentrified Time’s Square, eliminating the seediness and the grunge in order to make the area presentable to only a certain elite class of clientele. Rather the very ingrained urban nature of Porta Maggiore is its most precious resource. Like the mismanaged and jumbled Rome Ranxerox inhabited in the eighties, today there is extreme forms of life in this Italian capital that exists nowhere else. A place of improvisation, of squats, of aggression and of reconciliation, a kind of cosmopolitanism without reproach, here is the vital Rome, and here is where a new kind of urban equilibrium needs to be revealed.

ranxerox colisseo s d_10154030158420860_691628465_nRanxerox, (Tamburini, Frigidaire excerpted, permission for republication not requested)

To bring some contemplation to this 200 meter diameter traffic turntable, bubbles of tranquility should be created around the monumental archways, by erecting light translucent floating envelopes designed to capture the ancient Roman structures and insulate them from the pollution and dust rising up from all around. Within these structures temporary food markets, flea stands, book vendors and cafes should be gathered together. The Roman monuments should remain part of the greater commons, while the trains and trams should be stopped from traversing the Porta, through a set of interruptions—(Roma Interrotta?) where people would be encouraged to walk across lawns and over patterned paving to reach a new set of transit stations set well beyond the walls and aqueducts, by Piazza Labicana.

PTL christo like cover to protect PM 4806

Automobile and bus traffic should be brought down to one single lane at the extreme perimeter of the Piazza, giving over the remaining asphalt areas to green park and light recreation, bicycle paths and skateboarders. Heavy traffic should be diverted towards San Giovanni, and brought onto the ramps of the Tangenziale. In Piacentini’s 1930s greater urban master plan for the capital, the whole of the Stazione Termini was to have been removed and relocated well beyond the city center. In its stead, Piacentini envisaged a broad boulevard following the station’s tracks. This idea, extremely advanced if one thinks of the time wasted arriving at a terminus station, would be excellent to reconsider today. The elimination of Termini and the transformation of the rail yards into a new pedestrian and cycle boulevard “High Line” would physically bring the city to the doors of Piazza Maggiore.


Here of course there is no rush to implementation, for time in Piazza Porta Maggiore remains stationary. But any of these actions could be accomplished without spending much money, it could all be temporary, taking advantage of the very infrastructural systems already in place, much like Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt. Inflatables could be draped over the Roman Gates and Aqueducts as did Christo in his project for the Porta Pinciana in 1974. Rail and tram traffic can be stopped on both sides of the Piazza, allowing people to walk through the archways without risk of being run over. Car traffic could be blocked as it has along the Via Imperiale. A trial, low cost. Something for almost nothing. Piazza Porta Maggiore, whether one is stuck there or not, is one of the most incredible experiential spaces in Rome. Why not stay there voluntarily?


All photos and illustrations by the Author unless otherwise noted. PTL. 2016.