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Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Working in Rome in the Mid-1960s
By R. Ann Siracusa

I’ve already shared with some of you some experiences living in Rome, my favorite city, in the 1960s and how those experiences have influenced my writing.  A number of my novels are set in Rome.  Today, I’ll blog about working there as a foreigner.
In those days, you didn’t get a job in Italy unless you had connections, even if you were Italian.  Foreigners had the additional complication of needing a work permit from the government.  After a few short-term jobs with architects, a friend of a friend of a friend of my husband-to-be got me a job as an architect/planner at the Societá Generale Immobiliare (a land development firm) located on Via Quattro Fontane, downtown Rome.  That’s essentially how I got into urban planning rather than architecture as my profession.
The Societá Generale Immobiliare
The Societá General Immobiliare was the largest real estate and construction company in Italy, and it’s major stockholder was the Vatican.  The company had offices throughout Italy, as well as in New York and Washington DC.  In fact, the Immobiliare designed and built to the Watergate in DC.
Wow.  At the time I had no idea.  All I cared about was having a job.  I’d promised my parents I’d come home in January 1964 if wasn’t working, since they weren’t inclined to support me once I got out of the university.  They didn’t know Luciano and I got married in a civil ceremony in December of 1963.  The job offer came just in time, or I would have had some big time explaining to do.  Well, all it did was delay the inevitable.  Another story.
Every morning I caught the bus at Piazza Fiume and got off at Piazza Barberini, just a skip and a jump from Via Veneto, the street where the US Embassy is located, along with some of the most expensive hotels and high-fashion designer houses in old Rome.

 Piazza Fiume (more recent)


Piazza Barberini
The office of the Immobiliare was up the hill from Piazza Barberini on Via Quattro Fontane.  Further up the hill, on Via XX Settembre, were the four fountains the street is named after and the Church of San Carlos alle Quattro Fontane designed by Borromini.
Walking from Piazzi Barberini up the hill to the office
Walking down the hill toward Piazzi Barberini
Chiesa di San Carlos alle Quattro Fontane-Francesco Borromini 1634-1638
Continuing past the four fountains on each corner of the intersection of Via Quattro Fontane and Via XX Settembre, the street takes you to Via Nazionale, one of the major shopping street.  Now, it’s mostly tourist oriented, but in the 1960s, there were high fashion boutiques and good stores along the street, as well as expensive hotels and art galleries.  I used to walk to Via Nazionale to shop when I could.

Regular work hours in Rome were 8 am to Noon and 3 pm to 7:30 pm Monday thru Friday (4 pm to 8 pm in the summer), and 8 am to 1 pm on Saturday.  The long lunch break in the middle of the day wasn’t usable for anything since nothing was open except bars and restaurants.  No hairdresser, no museums, no movies, no stores.  Just enough time to get home on the bus, make lunch, clean up, and go back to work.  Four commute trips instead of two.  Nothing was open on Sunday, and on Monday thru Friday, stores closed at 9 pm.  Just enough time to get home and do the daily shopping.  Most people shopped daily because many people didn’t have refrigerators and those who did had quite small ones.  It was customary to eat a light dinner at around nine.  Children usually ate earlier and were in bed by the time the adults sat down to the table.
I was not a big fan of the afternoon siesta time and the work hours.
And speaking of walking, those were the times for full skirts and very high spike heels.  And the street downtown are all cobblestone.  I lost more heels off my shoes crossing the streets. 

 Our office “gofer” person, who ran all sorts of errands, would bring coffee and slices of Roman pizza for us in the mornings.  I’d never seen or heard of Roman pizza which is, indeed, bread.  Not at all like Neopolitan Pizza, which is what I was used to in California.  Sometimes the Roman pizza had slices of prosciutto and cheese on it, but it was not like a topping, and no tomatoe sauce.
It tasted soo good.  I might have gained weight but the office was on the third and fourth floors of a renovated residential building, so I climbed three flights of stairs several times a day.  Most old buildings (and there are many) have no elevators.  My husband-to-be lived on the fourth floor of a six-story apartment building with no elevator.  Going up is a long way, even when you’re young.  That’s why people sent kids to the store and lifted the goods up in a basket lowered on a rope from the upper floors.  You didn’t run down to the street every time you thought of something you forgot.
Most of the ancient buildings in historic Rome haven’t been retrofitted with elevators, even now.  It’s very expensive and runs afoul of the historic preservation laws.  Many of the upper floors of very old buildings in old Rome are abandoned and used for nothing, not even storage.
So, every morning ran up the hill from Piazza Barberini to the office, ran up three flights of stairs, and went into the office and had my espresso and Roman pizza.  One of the architects, Gianpiero Bongi, had an American wife and spoke good English.  One secretary had worked in London for a year and was adequate.  That was it.  The rest of my communication, including with the boss, had to be in Italian.  I learned by fire.  I shared an office with Bianca Gallo, an architect about ten years older, with whom I am still friends.
The offices of the Immobiliare were built around an open courtyard, but the office Bianca and I shared opened onto Via Quattro Fontane.  Since there was no air conditioning or fans, we had to open the windows in the summertime when it was hot.  Not only was it noisy, but we were located directly across the street from one side of the central office and barracks of the Corrazieri…the mounted guard of the Carabinieri (military police) who quarded the presidential palace.  That’s where they stabled their horses.  What as stink!  At one point we resorted to pushing wads of tissues up our noses, until one day the boss came in.  He was not amused.  After that we just had to tough it out.
We designed a built new towns and satellite cities throughout Italy and parts of North Africa.  I worked on some interesting projects and had the satisfaction of seeing Casal Palocco, outside Rome, built when I returned several years later.
The biggest compliment they could have given me was when I left (because we were coming to America) they had to hire a replacement for me.
If you want more about living in Rome in the sixties, go to:
Remember to take the time to enjoy the little things of everyday living while you can.  It's the journey that counts.
I’d love to hear from you.


Tina Donahue said...

Wow - do I envy you. I've always wanted to visit Rome but to be able to live there. Wow. You're so lucky.

Sandy said...

I bet you stayed slim with all that walking and going up and down stairs. lol

A lot of European cities still buy their food daily, don't they? In the small villages, I think they do.

Paris said...

Thanks for the fun and very interesting blog! I didn't think about the necessity of hauling everything up flights of stairs every day. Whew, what a workout!

jean hart stewart said...

Wow, the backs of my legs ache just reading about all that walking and climbing....

Mary Corrales said...

Amazing photos. Thanks for sharing. So true that taking time to enjoy the journey of life is important.

I imagine you could twist an ankle good with high heels on cobblestone streets. Yikes.

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