Rome is a city of infinite guises and layers. The city’s charm has never been limited to historical sites, enormously rich and numerous as they are, but found rather in all its cohabitations and contradictions. Rome resists a fixed identity because, since its foundation – the square, centre, empire, power – has contained its negative – the dirt, vulgarity, chaos. While you’re staring at something sublime, a gust of fetid wind might remind you that reality is made up of both idealism and its foil.
To give an account of what Rome is today, Valerio Mattioli unravels the legacy of a city in his 2019 book Remoria, La città invertita that remaps the squared borders of its urban plan based on ‘perfection’ and instead creates a circle – ‘the anus that defecates the suburbs.’ That is the infrastructure of the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the motorway ring built after the Second World War, before the city was even a metropolis. Mattioli inverts the perspective and destroys the official narration by telling ‘a story outside historiography’ from 1977 until today. He borrows characters from cultural memorabilia such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films Accattone (1961) and Salò (1975) and Stefano Tamburini’s 1980s comic strip RanXerox. Mattioli digs into local apparitions of subcultures such as punk, goth and techno, which manifested as esoteric visions at different times in Rome’s suburbs. As Rome is a city that speaks of all cities, Remoria deserves to be read around the world, though it has not yet been translated in full. Speaking on occultism, theory and his own experiences of urban life, Mattioli moves through an underground world beneath and parallel to enduring mythologies. Without exoticising or romanticising, Remoria places the peripheral in the centre, transforming events into myths and infrastructures into symbols, while casting forgotten histories and geographies into the realm of the real. Despite its seminal imperial ambitions, Rome is the city of chaos, an anus that subverts the order by refusing borders and categories – a place where past and future collide and materialise in ruins.
Giulia Crispiani: As we are both Romans, we are familiar with the language of the neighbourhood. I was wondering if you could introduce a few words to a wider audience.
Valerio Mattioli: The literary magazine Berlin Quarterly recently published an excerpt from Remoria and they translated ‘borgatasfera’ to ‘suburbsphere.’ For years I’ve been grappling with foreign terms that didn’t have a proper equivalent in my own language. ‘Borgata’ has several corresponding concepts. We could say that the Roman borgata is similar to ‘ghetto.’ Back in the 1940s through 1960s, borgatas could be compared to favelas or slums – before they became something different. Today, not every borgata is a ghetto. Rome has its own form of local segregation, despite having a similar logic to other cities.
Giulia: Could you elaborate on this some more? What is Rome in your opinion?
Valerio: If we examine the shape, we could call it a fractal city. I’d say that Rome in many ways is chaotic. From a more mythological point of view, what we call Rome today is very similar to the city that existed 2,000 years ago. Namely, the city as an urban organism that strictly defines inside and outside, who’s in and who’s out. Today, gentrification has become central to what is demarcated as peripheral.
Rome is a city that brutally subverts this logic. I find it a very cool city because it is so real. Although this doesn’t mean that it’s a convenient place to live. For example, if you think of the city’s public transport system, it’s so widespread and illogical – going from one place to another is an adventure and you never know how much time it will take you.
Giulia: If keep with semantics, there are two other terms that come to mind: ‘coatto’ and ‘palazzinaro.’ How would you frame them?
Valerio: I’d say ‘coatto’ is originally the typology of lumpenproletariat but can also be used to address a gangster or hooligan. You could recognise the Roman coatto in a similar archetype in your own city. The same goes for ‘palazzinaro.’ What would you call it in English? The closest description would be ‘urban developer.’ Although, in Italian, it is very much connected to corruption. It’s not a very complimentary phrase.
Giulia: Pasolini depicted Rome in a neo-realist way that differs very much from the romantic image of the city. Where does Remoria fit within those two perspectives?
Valerio: Fifty years ago, Pasolini already understood the way the city was shifting. Today the city is very different. However, you can still sense and trace something of the Pasolini heritage.
What is interesting about Rome is its duality. It is a metropolis with dys-functionalities. We’ve been told for decades that the future of the city is the Northern European kind: compact gentrified neighbourhoods and financial districts with their own discrete functions. You can trace the roots back to Ancient Rome – yet contemporary Rome escapes these expectations.
Giulia: In Remoria, you locate Rome in its foundational myth of Romulus slaying his brother Remus, although your account is more esoteric.
Valerio: Remoria is often described as a fantasy novel, which I actually like. It is not a manifesto or an urban planning manual or a sociology essay. The historical aspect is important.
I worked with the cultural moments of the last three decades and tried to make them into their own mythology. It is an alternative pantheon for the urban organism, a way to reflect on this city, that is rooted in a powerful, structured system of legends. My aim is to find their equivalent in the messy, chaotic moment we are in now.
Giulia: The Grande Raccordo Anulare is a famous motorway ring around Rome, known as the GRA. In Remoria, you describe the GRA as the circle versus the square of the old city. It is the anus and the suburbs are its excrements. The anal is a recurrent metaphor. It seems to resonate with Paul B. Preciado’s ‘anti-system orifice installed in each and every one of our bodies.’ This is interesting, can you share some of your references?
Valerio: Preciado’s Anal Terror, next to Georges Bataille’s writing, are important influences. Another influence I would like to mention is the cartoonist Stefano Tamburini. Even though words are not his medium, I think you could see him as one of the greatest thinkers of the 1970s. A lesser-known philosopher, Luciano Parinetto who influenced Mario Mieli is also someone that I tip my hat to.
Giulia: Your use of the anal is symbolic and holds its position next to queer theory. Could you elaborate on this?
Valerio: Queer thinking has been highly influential – in the same way as feminist thought. Especially in Italy, feminism has been important because it’s been the moment when the personal became political – this heritage is something to understand if you want to discuss contemporary society with any relevance. You know, I wasn’t trained in critical theory at university and in this respect, I can have my own colloquial take on philosophical concepts. To me, theory is not a cold monolith, but something to be creative with.
Giulia: You describe Claudio Caligari’s film Amore Tossico (1983), which hyper-realistically depicts a post-1977 Italian provincial landscape from the point of view of heroin addicts. Through this, you capture the generation that followed and took over from the Summer of Love. They are a generation whose utopian dreams vanished. It seems this specific cultural moment is fundamental to understanding where we are today. What do you think happened?
Valerio: It’s the same generation as British Punk, which represented huge upheaval in the social and political fabric of that moment. Italy’s 1977 is described as an answer to British Punk in Simon Reynolds’ 2005 anthology Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984. I don’t know if this is exactly correct, but Reynolds’ analysis is based on the idea that youth around the globe, or at least in the Western world, passed through a similar paradigm shift. During this time heroin became a widespread phenomenon in Italy. In a way, the drug has come to represent how the dreams and utopias, imagined in the 1960s and 1970s came to a halt. Heroin coincided with the 1980s, a time when the political and economical landscape shifted into neoliberalism. In my opinion, modern cities or the re-foundation of the city – if we understand cities as people living together and sharing experiences in the same place – are historically rooted in heroin addiction. Heroin arrives at the very same moment a new city is reshaping and it’s the vector of this change or at least one crucial factor among others.
Inoculating your body with drugs means you begin to mutate, to return to the fantasy-horror sci-fi perspective. This brings me back to Tamburini and his comic RanXerox, also read in the US, UK and Germany in the 1980s. The figure of RanXerox was the perfect specimen of a new kind of city-dweller. Earlier we were talking about how we would translate coatto, well, RanXerox was a coatto. Although the character could be understood elsewhere as he was very relatable.
…You can read this in underground fashion and music, not only as means of ‘revolting against the system,’ but also something more introspective…
Giulia: In the book, you discuss subcultures of the last forty years intertwining urbanism and psycho-geography.
Valerio: Subcultures define the moment when local youth introjects their behaviour to reverse the status quo. You can read this in underground fashion and music, not only as means of ‘revolting against the system,’ but also something more introspective, often hidden under the surface of the city.
It was interesting to consider how certain subcultures became popular in a Mediterranean context. Take, for example, goth subculture – named ‘dark’ in Italian. As with almost every other subculture we’ve witnessed in the last forty years, goth was born in the UK. So how does a movement that originated in a different country, with a completely different attitude and temperature, find its place in a city like Rome? You might think that in a hot, sunny Mediterranean country you wouldn’t be allowed to ‘venerate darkness.’ Yet the Italian goths came to represent a refusal – a black sun that inverts the ideology of light.
Giulia: From subcultures to suburbs. Having both grown up outside of the city centre, I think we share a nostalgia for the familiar landscape of suburbia.
Valerio: Cities nowadays are mostly made up of suburbs. If you take a map of Rome, you’ll see that the city centre is only a small part of the area, the rest is mainly suburbs. It is obvious that each city insists on its own identity, no two are the same. But I do think that there is universalism in suburban life – a shared sense of ethics, behaviours or visions – that seems communicable to different urban backdrops.
Giulia: This seems interesting. I’m thinking now of the 1990s rave scene in Rome.
Valerio: Recently, I’ve noticed a kind of renewed interest in it. For a long series of coincidences, we had this renowned techno rave scene that became a local religion more or less. Techno musicians such as Lory D or Leo Anibaldi or the D’Arcangelo brothers were quite known in the 90s also outside of Italy, some of them released stuff for Reflex, Aphex Twin’s label. I remember I went to a record shop in London in the late 90s, and there was this section, with a shelf labelled ‘the sound of Rome.’ I felt really proud. You have to imagine that I was very young when the rave scene started in Italy. I wasn’t particularly interested in techno or in rave per se – although techno was everywhere, in all its subcategories, and very hard to escape. For example, techno was the official sound of the suburbs, especially when the rave scene split into two different scenes: one is the hardcore scene – known as ‘the Virus’ – the other is the illegal rave scene, which is the one I liked, more cyberpunk, libertarian and anarchist. The illegal rave scene of the 90s was strictly connected to the heritage of the 1977 youth movement, that basis for Tamburini’s RanXerox. You have a continuum, in fact, a sort of dark continuum.
Giulia: If you had someone visit you from abroad who has never seen Rome, where would you take them?
Valerio: I would most definitely visit the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel because they are so impressive. Next to the historical monuments, I’d take this person on a tour to see some contemporary ruins. For example, the Vela by Santiago Calatrava, a celebrated architect of the 1990s and early 2000s, when star architects were meant to be shaping the city of the future. For instance, Zaha Hadid designed the contemporary art museum MAXXI, Renzo Piano the Auditorium, Richard Meier did the Ara Pacis and Calatrava was called to design La Vela di Calatrava a Roma, a stadium in a suburb of the city. For financial reasons the project was never completed, so now you have the skeleton of this huge monster abandoned in the fields outside the GRA, the motorway ring. Rome is a city of ruins and the Vela is a ruin without a past. If ruins are by definition what remains of a forgotten past, the Vela skeleton is a remnant of something that never happened, a ruin of a future that was never realised. It is a demonstration of the arrogance of the establishment.
Giulia: So Remoria is not Rome. What is it then?
Valerio: Remoria is not necessarily a utopia. It beholds a form of emancipation, one formed from ruins, of rust and dirt.