It’s a bright, blue-sky day and I’m standing outside the old Testaccio slaughterhouse. Built in the late 19th century, it was a busy, industrial part of town, home to the hard-working people of Rome. In use for almost 100 years, it closed in 1975 and was then left abandoned. As weeds and ruin crept in, its large, industrial spaces began to be reclaimed.
Now there’s an organic farmer’s market every Sunday and an eco-supermarket and spaces for modern art exhibitions. If you look around you’ll see it’s industrious past is not hidden; a stone sculpture of a man grappling with a bull sits atop the entrance to what is now the Macro Museum of Contemporary Art. A great example of urban renewal and re-purpose, it’s the perfect place to meet Sara D’Ambrosio, founder of Rovescio.
I’m here to tag along on one of Rovescio’s street art tours and find out more about the burst of urban art that has exploded in the Testaccio, Ostiense, and Garbatella neighborhoods in recent years. First though, D’Ambrosio tells me a little about the organization whose name translates to reverse in English: representing the desire to do things differently, to be alternative.
“The reason for starting Rovescio came from my passion for street art. I had developed my local knowledge of the area and I was really inspired to gather together all the information I had and to build the itinerary for the tours. I got together a group of people from different professions: communication, photography, and graphic design. Together we made a team, passionate about street art but also very professional in our own sectors,” she explains.
Founded in March 2015, Rovescio was established just in time to play its part in the city’s annual festival, Estate Romana (Roman Summer). Celebrating culture throughout Rome, the festival is comprised of different musical, theatrical, and artistic events and activities organized independently by local companies and communities. As well as promoting their street art tours through this program of events, Rovescio curated Estate Urbana (Urban Summer), a street festival that featured in-depth exhibitions, music, creative workshops, and talks from street artists themselves.
“That summer we had a lot of visibility right away; we practically exploded,” D’Ambrosio recounts. “We started doing social communications and we reached a lot of people. There was really a lot of interest, and since then we have been so busy.”
In my opinion, every city needs citizens with this can-do attitude. D’Ambrosio’s desire to make things happen and to create an organization that celebrates and champions Rome on its own terms has to be admired.
“I live in this zone and so do almost all of the people of Rovescio,” D’Ambrosio enthuses. “If they don’t live here, they know it really well. By now we’ve become experts. This is a historical and architectural area, of which we have a really deep knowledge. We’re even fascinated to know how a street got its name, for example.”
This insider knowledge from local people with a passion, not just for street art but for Rome itself, means the tour is packed with interesting nuggets of information you simply won’t find in the guide books.
Whilst chatting to D’Ambrosio, the rest of our tour group has arrived. I join them and our guide for the morning, Serena Fantozzi, who leads us to the first artwork of the day.
We start in front of a 30ft wolf painted on the side of an apartment block in Via Galvani. The classic symbol of Rome, the famous she-wolf is usually seen suckling and providing nourishment to Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city. As you’d expect from street art, this piece however, treats the subject matter in a more subversive way.
Today’s she-wolf has lost her maternal instincts, appearing thin, disheveled, and forgotten by the modern world. Entitled Jumping Wolf and created by Belgium artist, Roa, she is depicted baring her teeth; she might be forgotten but the fight certainly doesn’t look finished yet.
I don’t want to give away the entire tour itinerary, but for me the highlight was 27 Faces by Italian street artist Blu. A rainbow of weird and wonderful characters, this mural covers an entire building on Via del Porto Fluviale and is a landmark of the Ostiense neighborhood. It’s a building that I literally see every day and yet the Rovescio team still had tons to teach me about it.
Street art isn’t something you can pack up and put in a gallery. The art’s meaning is best discovered whilst exploring and experiencing the city first hand. During my two-hour tour, I learnt these artworks are just as much a part of Rome as the marble sculptures and oil paintings inside the city’s museums. Taking a walk with Rovescio is to have the opportunity to discover the story of Rome told from an alternative perspective.
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