Birth of Venus by French Adolphe Bouguereau (1879)

Roman Subura, New and Old

Suburra (Italian name for Latin Subura) refers to the slums district of ancient Rome, full of “disreputable locals and brothels” (sort of a red-light district, if you prefer) and inhabited by low-class Romans together with people, mainly poor immigrants, from all over the Empire (quoted from here where you get infos on location of Subura in modern Rome). Modern rione Monti corresponds to a part of it.

Julius Caesar “grew up in a home in the Subura district (Wikipedia) even though he came of the most aristocratic origins.” I won’t talk of ancient Subura though. I will instead bring up what seems to me the New Subura, namely the area around Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, not far from Termini Railway Station (see picture below from Google Maps).

Piazza Vittorio, at the centre of multi-ethnic Rome. Google Maps, hybrid view. Fair Use

While cutting across the rione almost every morning in order to catch the subway line-A train I feel this intoxicating aura of exoticism pervading the area and reminding me of some corners of Bombay, the city of wonders and my favourite Indian city. Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Africans, Eastern-Europeans etc. crowd these orthogonal streets making them tremendously vibrant.

Mafias, prostitution and illegal activities flourish here of course (thence the analogy with ancient Subura) but on the whole the place and Rome are starting to profit from all this, especially now that the big money is arriving.

So Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is right at the centre of new multi-ethnic Rome.

Piazza Vittorio is actually the New Subura.

New found Pride

One month ago, while I was desperately trying to catch my train to my office, I saw some Chinese youngsters possibly doing their Tai Chi Chuan gymnastics on the grass in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele Gardens, a magnificent park that occupies the greatest part of this huge rectangular porticoed piazza, the biggest in Rome, built after the unification of Italy by architect Gaetano Koch between 1882 and 1887. These Chinese faces looked very self-assured, I couldn’t but notice. They were very focused on their activity, with curious passers-by gathering around them.

Tai Chi Chuan. Fair use

To the history-addicted the place is somewhat ghostly because it used to be the place of witches, assassins and slaves’ executions during ancient Roman Republican times. The piazza is in fact located at the top of the Esquiline Hill, the highest of the Seven Hills, a no man’s land at the edge of Subura until emperor Augustus redeemed it and which revealed its horrors more than 2000 years later during the public works conducted by architect Gaetano Koch who found vast carnage pits dating back to the Republican Roman era.

The park also contains the famous Porta Alchemica or alchemic door (XVII century AD) which, according to some alchemists, could reveal the secret of the philosopher’s stone in its engraved symbols (so, Harry Potter‘s fans, open well your eyes: you might discover the secret of secrets. See the alchemic door picture below – Wikimedia Commons. Same image at a higher resolution here).

Porta alchemica. Gnu free documentation license. Low res

Totally unaware of all this spooky past these young Chinese faces seemed to me a totally new generation. Many Romans in their uncaring attitude have not noticed the difference, useless to say. Chinese people are all over the place in New Subura, attending customers in shops and stores, working energetically in restaurants and at bar tables or having some relax at open-air cafes.

Trendy-clothed teenagers – pretty high-heeled girls with weird-coloured hair and macho-looking T-shirted boys – meet in the evening at the renowned Fassi’s Palace of Ice(cream) close-by (Palazzo del Freddo), one of the most ancient ice-cream shops in Italy, located in 65, Via Principe Eugenio.

How all is changing so fast. Customers at Fassi are now much more mixed up and how terribly hard-working these Far-Eastern people seem compared to us and even to some Honk-Kong Chinese friends who are westernised and really admire the incredible hardiness of the unspoiled mainland Chinese.

They do not seem keen to show their feelings though (both the mainland and the HK Chinese). It is the reason why they look so enigmatic to Romans, or marble-faced (this is how I tease my HK friends, not deprived of some nice UK sense of humour). The simple truth, I think, is that they are just shy.

It is now three-four years that the Roman Chinese and Indians have sort of come out of this psychological ghetto every immigrant initially finds into (Italians know too well, having being, as immigrants, scattered all over the world), their eyes less elusive and their facial expressions franker (and prouder). Indian faces are more expressive, being more similar to us in their non-verbal communication (we have blood in common, after all). Chinese are marble-faced instead lol, whatever HK guys may say 🙂

Sikhs from all over Italy gather in Piazza Vittorio. Baisakhi festival (Repubblica) fair use

Is Rome Adapting to the Future?

Caught out by a swiftly growing immigration phenomenon the Romans are starting to overreact every now and then, although on the whole they preserve this good-natured, I-couldn’t-care-less type of behaviour (called menefreghismo bonario) which indeed characterizes them and which is typical of a folk who really saw everything in the course of their history. Is such menefreghismo (or chissenefrega attitude) anachronistic today, not providing a sufficiently powerful barrier against Roman possible mounting decline (and Italian & European)?

I don’t remember who said: “I wish we will not live in an interesting age”.

What has to be understood is that this multicultural / multiracial situation is rather recent here compared to places like London or Paris (not to mention America). Rome, we believe, is nevertheless trying to adapt to the future, her somewhat economic success providing evidence of this reaction capability (local economic figures are growing faster than the Italian annual GDP increase).

To this success residing foreigners are contributing, it is hard to deny.


Related posts:

Rome. Stepmother or Alma Mater?

20 thoughts on “New Subura

  1. Hahaha. It’s sort of “mingling” thats happening all over the world as people finally cross kingdom boundaries and mingle with people from other ethnicities and finally lose all ethnicity to become one – the human race. Or perhaps they’ll divulge more, lol.

    India is also an immigrant magnet now, people from Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar come here most. [Others are there too.] There used to be a Tibetan girl who used to sit behind me everyday in college. I never talked to her or noticed her, and last year she suddenly found my blog and now she’s a regular lurker there. Connections where you don’t imagine them, lol. But its going far away from the topic.

    A small fact is resentment. Local people feel resentment because employers hire foreigners to do work instead of locals because the foreigners work for less. This is also a problem in India, however its more of a regional thing than internation immigrant thing. lol. As the ship moves forward, it will encounter more ice. lol.

    Oh and I’m waiting for the Roman S & the city. 😀


  2. @ Man of Roma

    It is intresting to see this post that somewhere in the world we are still open to migrants who come, adapt to the new culture and yet do not loose their identity.

    It is really good to see the Gandhian concept of “world citizen” is kept alive by cities like Rome, while in India we are still revertin back to same old vices of caste, religion, region which made us slaves for 200 years.

    Hey did I say India…Again this nationalist feeling…Guess I am still a hypocrite!!!


  3. @Falcon
    Do not think, Falcon, Rome and Italy are so ideal. We have problems too with immigrants, especially because they are starting to be numerous. As far as Rome, some integration occurs because Romans are not a closed-up people, what we try here is not to have ghettos (like maybe in Milan with the Chinese) but lots of things are still to be done for real integration. Ashish reminded that India has similar problems (immigrants) because of her growing economy. “Thats happening all over the world” he said. It is an “interesting age”, as I wrote on this post …meaning that interesting means also dangerous and insecure …

    Again this nationalist feeling…Guess I am still a hypocrite!!!
    No, I do not think you are a hypocrite. Nationalism is not necessarily bad. It is good you are proud to be Indian. India is one of the greatest civilizations on earth! Why shouldn’t you be proud of it? Italians are not proud sometimes to be Italian, which is very silly in my view because we also have done many things for humanity. What is not good about nationalism is only when it engenders violence, bias, scorn of others.


  4. It seems the problems related to immigrants are common in every country. Hong Kong is a small place on the world map (just a little spot), with almost 7 million population. The rate of population is raising due to the immigrants from mainland China. Hong Kong is a good place for those people in mainland China to develop their careers before they go overseas, besides some of them do investment in HK. Hong Kong Government tried to use some methods to control the number of immigrants.

    “Chinese are marble-faced instead lol, whatever HK guys may say ”

    Yes, you’re right. Chinese are similar no matter they are born in mainland china or HK. So maybe marble-faced ones look similar lol…

    “It is the reason why they look so enigmatic to Romans, or marble-faced (this is how I tease my HK friends, not deprived of some nice UK sense of humour). The simple truth I think is that they are just shy.”

    ManofRoma, you have hk friends? so i think u know better about Chinese. They are not so enigmatic as western think.

    I think the sense of humour is related to the personality, as i know that, there are so many people in Hong kong without sense of humour lol. Besides, the marble-faced implied something.. yes, maybe shy, maybe they were just thinking something in their mind lol…


  5. @Autumnsnow
    Yes, I have some HK friends, as I have already said in this post, but I haven’t been to HK yet (only to Singapore, which must be different, even if there are lots of Chinese there too) … Are you from HK, Autumn snow? It would be interesting to know.

    I have always thought Chinese people are only enigmatic for those who didn’t get to know them. I did, and I find them warm-hearted, extremely intelligent, though sometimes, yes, a bit shy. I do not mind. I much prefer a shy person to the tons of chatter-boxes we have here lol.



  6. Well, I know HK well and I have been to Singapore. Singapore is totally different from HK even if there are lots of Chinese there. I have been there before, it was a very very clean and tidy city, only the island resort named “Sentosa”, the big Merlion statue on this island impressed me lol~ Anyway, it’s a nice place for vacation~

    ManofRoma, you made me think of “Chatter-boxes” like mosquitos…mm…i mean it makes people feel annoyed lol~ haha ^o^


  7. “The park contains also the famous Porta Alchemica or alchemic door (XVII century AD) which, according to some alchemists, contains the secret of the philosopher’s stone in its engraved symbols (so, Harry Potter’s fans, open well your eyes: you might discover the secret of secrets.”

    It is so amazing to read that the alchemic door really exists in this world!!!! Why I said that? It is because I have watched a japanese animation named “Full Metal Alchemist”. When i started to watch it, i thought this story was FAKE.

    In that animation, the story begins about two brothers, Alphonse and Edward Elric. Ever since they were young they had practiced the science of alchemy. One day their mother died, and in their innocence and ignorance, they attempted what was forbidden, human alchemy. What happened next, they were obviously not prepared for, and in the aftermath the brothers lost more than just their mother. In the freak accident Alphonse loses his body, and in a moment of panic Edward ties his brother’s soul to a piece of armor. Edward himself loses an arm and a leg, a costly reminder of what has happened.

    The whole story is interesting and it always reminds something. ” One who does not sacrifice anything cannot achieve anything.” and it also mentioned about the philosopher’s stone lol. Not only in Harry potter~~ 🙂

    ManofRoma, do you know what is behind the alchemic door?


  8. @AutumnSnow
    Dear AutumnSnow,
    thank you for your interesting Japanese story. No, I do not know what is behind the alchemic door. Chatter boxes like mosquitos? It seems a funny comparison, Autumnsnow.

    I wish you all the best.


  9. In that Japanese animation, it also talked about what is behind the alchemic door. The story used to tell us ‘the truth’ is behind that door. Actually, it was another world, a world without the science of alchemic.


  10. Ciao! Ok so I just had to test that the comment would actually be submited, I´m not sure how this blog thing works and I have a feeling that the following will be long…
    I found your thread very interesting ! I am a Swedish girl studying in Rome since almost 3 months back. Immigration and its subsequences is a topic that is, and has always has been important to me. I grew up in an area of Gothenburg where more than half of my friends were not 100% Swedish. I know for a fact that having immigrated, mixed and adopted friends from all over the world shaped me in to a more cultural and open-minded person. Gothenburg is the second largest in Sweden, however we only have about 600.000 habitants. There are suburbs with more than 90% non-Swedes, in contrast there are areas like mine were you see more of the second generation, this meaning children of immigrants, that are just as Swedish as you in a sense. My whole experience has been nothing but positive, and this is what will happen if you have a good political system-this is a VIRTUE. I am not saying that immigration politics are perfect in Sweden, we also have issues, which is inevitable with a question as delicate as this one. But I know for a fact that it works better in my country than in many others. I went to live in Paris when I was 19. It was very strange to see how people were divided in to ethnic groups. People from Maghreb , Africans, French- they all they didn’t mix to much. However when I brought this up with the French they all looked liked like question marks, giving me lines like…but no I have several “Arab-friends”. They don’t see the whole picture, and you can’t blame them, I too got used to the system after two years in Paris. I know that a major reason of the difference between my city and Paris is the size. Paris is so huge, therefore the risk of segregating people is bigger. But to me it’s sad that it’s not moving more in a positive direction. “Arabs” as the Magrebhian people call themselves in France, are still considered immigrants. This is very strange to me since they come from countries that used to be part of France, speak the language and many of them have been there since generations. They might cling on to their traditions, but they have the right to! I really, really love Paris- as a city. Why? Because it is interesting, exciting and challenging. I wish more people could understand that foreigners helped make Paris what it is today.
    So, about Rome 😉 I’m not going to say too much yet, I have only been here for a few months, and I go to an international school so I haven’t made too many Italian friends. But I can say that my first impression is minor shock. It’s incredible to me how a European capital city in these days can have such a low percentage of immigrants. Immigration is relatively new phenomena in Sweden, my dad saw his first black person at the age of seven. But we are going on our 3 rd generation, while in Rome I don’t think I have seen a single mixed child. The reason why I found this blog is that I am struggling with an assignment for school. I am doing a project called “border identity”. It is about the positive followings of people traveling and emigrating. The outcome might be someone like one of my best friends, Spanish mother and Swedish father. She speaks both languages, has the most beautiful Spanish features and outspokenness of the Spanish, but also all the positive aspects of the Swedish culture. The border identity is when cultural elements join together in another urban setting everything from dance and music to art and food( something I miss very much in Rome- no offensive to the Italian cuisine). The problem is that is has to be documented in pictures only, its in the design-area. To express my feelings in written wouldn’t have been to hard, but to get these kind of pictures in Rome, what do I do? I really want the mood of this to be positive, not to focus on the struggles of an immigrant, because after all it is hard; in the beginning.
    I would really appreciate any advice, you seem to be one of the best in Rome to ask! By the way, I wanted to ask; are you Italian? Thank you!


  11. @Isabel
    Your comment seems very interesting and I will reply fully whenever I can. Now a quick answer, randomly:

    The reason we have a little number of immigrants here, as I said, is because we didn’t have a great empire like the French or the British. Plus we are not so little populated as Sweden (actually we are already crowded lol) and our economy is not as good. Italy is nonetheless rich and this is starting to draw people more and more.

    My impression is that the Roman area tends to well assimilate foreigners because of its Mediterranean nature: our sea has been a melting pot since thousands of years. This reflects on the character of the Romans, who *tend* to accept all, although they are now more stressed because of growing traffic etc.

    As far as your research, you can go about the Esquilino area, and take pictures, only I doubt that many ‘border identities’ may have developed there since immigration as I said is recent. It takes time to develop a border identity like that of Salman Rushdie, for example, the Indian-British novelist.

    Andy, a nice Englishman who lives in Milan, writes in his blog: “Do Italians honestly believe that, because they haven’t had immigration until recently, they will not have the problems that all other countries have had (the Paris riots being that latest)?”. Hard to say what will happen in the future if this number grows too much. We will see.
    Lastly, yes, I am 100% Italian.

    All the best

    Another post of mine talks about immigration in Rome


  12. Thank you very much for your answer! You really understood my concept, bravissimo! I´ll try some more with the photos, but as you said, it´s hard to really capture the border identity. I just asked my mom to get some shots for me, she works in a school with 90% non-swedish people, so I think she has more to work with.
    I read the other article, funny it was almost excactly what I mentioned about Paris. I agree that the situation is different here in Rome. Roman people seem extremly friendly and rather open minded to me, so I think that things can go in a good direction here. Let´s just hope your leaders are careful and act wisely. This way Italy will only profit and become more globalized. Take care, and keep up the good work!
    P.S. You mentioned growing traffic in Rome, I can REALLY relate to this, not having a car.This can make the calmest of people go crazy. You need to dig some metro lines ignoring the historical findings lol.


  13. @Isabel
    Well …. open minded, I am not too sure … good-natured maybe is more realistic. We are trying to dig additional metro lines, but the findings, we have to care about lol. Sorry I could not help much. At this moment, I found in the Internet some Roman organizations who take care of immigrants. You might go there and ask them for advice. Many of these places are related to the Catholic Church, since Rome is the centre of this church, after all. I’ll paste them in a mail and send it to you.
    All the best and good luck!


  14. you did help! Thank you,I really appreciate it!
    People are always scared of what is new, I´m talking in relative terms when I say open-minded. We´ll give it; say..30 years and see what happens.
    The other night I went to an event in Campidoglio (hope that is the right name) that was organized to honor the 40 years since the assasination of Marthin Luther King, and focused on anti-racism. Apperantly the event was financed by your former gouvernor who now is running for preident(or something like that???) sorry for my lack of political skills. Anyway it seems like the city is doing something right.I prefer to be optimistic;)


  15. @Isabel
    You are the one who really seems open-minded. Seeing young people like you trying to help others and not building barriers gives a person like me hope in the future. In my country and in all Europe racism is growing. Rome is now in the hands of the Left, traditionally anti-racist. I used to be pro-left, now I tend to accept what seems ‘good’ to me. A ‘good’ thing like building kindergartens, for example, is not left- or right oriented. It is just ‘good’. I am pessimist via intelligence and optimist via will. This my Guru (or Magister) taught, lol.


  16. “Pessimist via intelligence and optimist via will”:) great way of putting it, to be optimistic isn´t always easy, it has to be a choice.
    I think it´s a good thing not to define yourself as right or left. I try to never discuss politics with anybody but my closest friends and family. It is much too complex of a matter, I always end up getting frustrated. When I am getting to know someone, I find it a better option to consider their values in life. You can´t tell what kind of person someone is by how they vote.
    Two students of my mother are currently helping me with additional photos for my project on border identity. It seems to be of interest in the school so probably it´ll lead to an exhibition in Sweden as well, so it looks like I started something good. The great thing is that it all started just by trying to get over obsticals.
    Take care!


  17. @Isabel
    An exhibition seems a very good result of your work, Isabel, my best compliments! Did you find any border identity here in Rome? It would be interesting to know. You too take care and good luck for everything.


  18. @Isabel
    Jean Leonard Touadì is from Congo and is the first black Member of the Italian Parliament, newly elected (Left) in these last elections. He represents a border identity because I heard on a radio interview that he arrived in Italy in the Seventies, together with a bunch of students from Congo, in order to study in the Italian university. He was already a member of the local Roman government.
    All the best


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