Often described as an open-air museum, Rome wears its artistic heritage proudly on its sleeve. Centuries-old churches house priceless Renaissance paintings, gigantic marble sculptures laze in public piazzas and, often, even buildings themselves are architectural spectacles. The city’s blockbuster museums and galleries are also laden with works by the world’s most famous artists and attract thousands of visitors a day. There are, however, still hidden gems to be discovered – unexpected artworks found outside the typical gallery space. From a frescoed secret passageway to a repurposed powerplant, here are some of the most unusual spots to admire art in the Eternal City.
In a Luxury Fashion Boutique
Even if designer shops aren’t your thing – or if, like me, you find the price tags just too painful – I encourage you to pay a visit to Palazzo Fendi at the crossroads of Via del Corso and Via Condotti. The flagship store of the Roman luxury fashion house is, of course, filled with high-end garments and extravagant accessories but it also exhibits a collection of contemporary art and design pieces. Swiss artist Not Vital’s dramatic Moon Ball sculpture dominates the entrance while the Campana Brothers’ Armchair of a Thousand Eyes – created specifically for the brand from more than 100 of their trademarked furry monster accessories known as Bag Bugs – sits next to a sweeping red marble staircase, which was cut from a single piece of Lepanto stone. Upstairs, original sketches by Karl Lagerfeld line the walls. In 2017, the 18-foot-high sculpture Foglie di Pietra (Leaves of Stone) by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone was installed outside the palazzo. Composed of two bronze tree trunks cradling an 11-ton marble block, it spans almost the entire length of the building.
At the Dinner Table
Originally the workshop of Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova and his protégé Adamo Tadolini, Canova-Tadolini is now an atmospheric dining spot. Interspersed among the café tables are life-sized statues of nude goddesses and toga-ed noblemen, many of them preparatory models or anatomical exercises for artworks that were eventually sold to patrons around the world. The artist’s tools provide a further glimpse into the creative process while vintage photographs and newspaper clippings recount the history of the atelier. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner but it’s more about the setting than the food here so consider skipping a full meal for a cocktail and nibbles. Alternatively, grab a coffee and cornetto at the bar for an even thriftier way to enjoy the surroundings.
In an Old Powerplant
Like London’s Tate Modern, Centrale Montemartini is a former power station that has been creatively revamped into a space to admire art. While at the Tate Modern the original machinery has been moved out, at Centrale Montemartini, the turbines, engines and other defunct apparatus are still very much in situ. These industrial artefacts form the backdrop to a collection of marble statues and sculptures from the archives of the Capitoline Museums. The juxtaposition between ancient and industrial compels visitors to reflect on two very different eras in Rome’s history and makes this one of the city’s most intriguing museums.
On Your Wrist
Established in 2012, Co.Ro. is a Roman-born jewellery brand that transforms the city’s architecture into wearable works of art. Their gorgeous boutique on Via della Scrofa is filled with elegant architecture-à-porter pieces in their signature geometric style. As an Ostiense resident, my favourite has to be the Gasometro cuff – a tribute to the neighbourhood’s iconic industrial landmark. Other pieces include gold-plated earrings bearing the hypnotic pattern of the Pantheon ceiling, an aqueduct-shaped bracelet, and a pendant in the form of the Palazzo della Civiltá (also known as the Square Colosseum) in EUR.
Along the Riverbank
Stretching 500 metres along the banks of the River Tiber, Triumphs and Laments chronicles 3,000 years of Roman history, good and bad. The vast mural features more than 80 figures including the city’s famed she-wolf, emperor Marcus Aurelius, Mussolini, and La Dolce Vita duo Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni. The work of South African artist William Kentridge, it was created by pressure-washing over stencils to clean mould and pollution from the surface of the riverbank’s Travertine stone walls. As such, this organic artwork, which was unveiled in 2016, is already fading into its surroundings and will soon be consigned to the history books – just like the characters represented in it.
On a Tree Trunk
Street artists have used Rome’s buildings, walls and bridges as their canvas for decades, but 22-year-old Andrea Gandini has found a new medium in the city’s forgotten tree trunks. With maintenance budgets shrinking and some plants diseased or at the end of their natural lifespan, local authorities have chopped down hundreds of trees, leaving a slew of stumps dotted around the city. Over the last few years, Gandini has been carving these stumps into urban artworks, many of which feature faces and figures and are inspired by the people he encounters while sculpting. It’s likely you might stumble upon these tactile, organic artworks by chance if you’re out and about in Rome but check out Gandini’s website for an official map.
In a Secret Passageway
Just around the corner from the always-bustling Campo de’ Fiori is a tiny alleyway decorated with frescoes. Missed by most visitors on the tourist trail, the Passetto del Biscione lies close to where the ancient Theatre of Pompey once stood and connects Piazza del Biscione with Via di Grottapinta. Its modest frescoes, featuring cherubs and festoons, were neglected for many years but restored to their present-day splendour in 2016.