A Morlacchi View of Rome

A detail fro Marcella Morlacchi's "Rome from the Victor Emmanuel Monument -- From the Colosseum to City Hall to the Tiber."
A detail fro Marcella Morlacchi’s “Rome from the Victor Emmanuel Monument — From the Colosseum to City Hall to the Tiber.”

I have a love-hate relationship with Rome.  Moments of sheer joy and exhilaration can slide into moments of excruciating frustration. The other day I was I blocked in traffic at rush hour on Rome’s nightmare Muro Torto — the curving road that runs along the winding, ancient city wall.  Motorinos (mopeds) were buzzing around me everywhere, in and out between cars, a blond thirty-something in a Smart car was beeping her horn uselessly behind me, as an annoying man in a Range Rover gesticulated aggressively at the driver of a beat-up truck who slid over a lane cutting him off.  I was late to pick up my daughter Chiara at chorus, I hadn’t had time to to walk our dog Settimo first, so he was happily sitting on the seat next to me, panting his bad doggy breath into the tiny Fiat and acting like a King sitting on a throne observing all the chaos around him.

I was neurotically checking email on my iPhone (yes, I do that in traffic.  I know, I know. I shouldn’t).  The traffic inched forward up the hill and around a bend. It was 7:40pm, I was late, my daughter would be waiting, hungry and grouchy and I still had to walk the dog and cook dinner.  My husband was away.  I felt aggravation levels rising.  Why do kids’ activities runs so late in Italy?  Why is there so much traffic in Rome?  Why do we eat dinner so late in this country?  Then I looked up and saw a group of Roman pines towering over the Villa Borghese park– their rounded green tops perched on their long spindly, sinuous trunks.  The sky was changing to a creamy pink and purple and suddenly I was filled with a sense of serenity and tranquillity.  I slipped into a day-dream about building myself a tree-house  in one and living above the chaotic Roman traffic (preferably without my iPhone).

I patted Settimo on the head and said, “Look at those Roman pines Settimo, aren’t they gorgeous?”  He panted appreciatively just as the thirty-something blond, who had been applying mascara moments earlier, let loose an annoying series of Smart car beeps and I had to move forward.  I can’t stand rich, young, long-haired blonds who put mascara on in their Smarts while in traffic, and I am sure rich, young, long-haired blonds can’t stand haggard, mascara-less, middle-aged working Moms who read their emails or stare longingly at Roman pines while patting panting dogs in Roman traffic.

But on to the point of this post, this week I had the opportunity to meet a woman who has re-ignited my passion for Rome.  A woman who often stays above the traffic, the smog, the litter and dirt, who steps back and enjoys the view and then recreates it in stunningly precise detail. Her name is Marcella Morlacchi and she is an architect, a professor and an artist.  I went to visit her studio because I wanted to buy one of her paintings but I was so enthralled with her work, her incredible talent and determined character that I ended up sitting down and asking her to tell me her whole life story.

Marcella draws and paints views of Rome — drawings coming from the hand of an experienced architect with every line precisely drawn, then she adds on top of that her talent as an artist — details and colors that bring the technical aspects to life.

Marcella Morlacchi working on a water-color painting of the Vatican. May 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas
Marcella Morlacchi working on a water-color painting of the Vatican. May 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

I could have sat in her studio all day between the paint brushes, plastic glasses full of water, paintings laid out on tables, and photographs of buildings and books.

Marcella was raised in the elegant Parioli neighborhood of Rome where she still has her home and studio.  Her father was a prominent police detective who she told me solved at least 20 murder mysteries, earning himself the name “The Italian Maigret.”

Marcella told me a fascinating story about one mystery that took her father seven years to resolve. It involved young woman named Vilma Montessi whose drowned body was washed ashore near Rome.  She had no socks on and her purse was gone, but otherwise she had not been physically harmed.  The investigation into her death became very complicated because there were some key political figures who ended up being incriminated.  To get to the truth her father and to push past political lobbying and screens. Her father also was famous for all the cheats, crooks and con-men that he caught.

Despite his prominence, Marcella’s father refused to bow to the Italian habit of using “raccomandazione” (recommendation) to help his four children get ahead professionally.  A “raccomandazione” is not a simply recommendation.  It is using your power to find another person with the power to do something for you–like get your child a job.  Italy has a long tradition of “raccomandazione” combined with nepotism, particularly in the field of academics.

Marcella Morlacchi wanted to become a professor of architecture but she could not get a paid position.  The University of Rome recognized her talent and allowed her to work for free (yes, unpaid!!) for 12 years  from 1972 to 1984.  She taught students in the prestigious school of Architecture all that time without having an official title or being paid.  In order to make money she did a myriad of other jobs.  She worked with a construction company going onto constructions sites consulting on archictectual aspects.  She said she loved the work and although she was surrounded by men, she never felt anything but respect and esteem.  She worked as a technical consultant for banks advising on architectural and construction projects where loans were requested.

A drawing of Piazza Navona by Marcella Morlacchi. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014
A drawing of Piazza Navona by Marcella Morlacchi. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

She did many jobs to earn money, but her true love was always drawing and teaching.  Eventually she did get a job at the University.  Her advice to me, “never, ever give up.”  She said she never got married (although apparently had plenty of offers) and never had children noting, “for me, my students were my children.”

It is hard to put a complete resume of Marcella Morlacchi in one blog post.  Her talents have been widely recognized.  She has written a wide variety of books, including a textbook for architecture students and various others both with sketches of Rome and commentary on the colors of Rome.

A drawing of Villa Pamphili in Rome by Marcella Morlacchi hanging on the wall of her studio. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014
A drawing of Villa Pamphili in Rome by Marcella Morlacchi hanging on the wall of her studio. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

The colors of Rome is probably the most important aspect of Marcella Morlacchi’s long career.  As she explained it to me, “I invented the use of watercolors in architecture as a discipline– I was the first to do it in the world.”

Because of her use of watercolors in her architectural drawings, Morlacchi gained a reputation as being an expert on the colors of Rome.   As she explained it to me with the unification of Italy in 1870, Rome became the capital and suddenly lots of construction began to accommodate all the government ministries and their employees moving to Rome, mostly from Turin.  The result was that the buildings in Rome are either historic (Renaissance or Baroque) or eclectic but there was one common factor, the buildings were originally colored so that the original rock or stone (tavertine marble in Rome) remained its natural color.  So the stones on the columns, windows, cornice were a natural color, and the remaining parts were a variation of brick colors from yellow to pinks to orange and brick red.  Anything else was wrong.

Apparently, very few experts in Rome at the time were aware of this and across the city people were lathering paint onto buildings with no respect for their history.  So, Marcella Morlacchi took the matter into her own hands.  She launched a major project for her own Municipality, Municipality A, including five neighborhoods of Rome and with her students worked out 21 diagrams color-coding very single building.  Their work ended up being the basis for a new regulation that was eventually established for the entire city of Rome.  Marcella Morlacchi explained to me that her biggest accomplishment in life has been saving the original colors of Rome.

Over the years, Morlacchi’s drawings became much more than archictectual sketches, they have become precious sought-after paintings of Rome.  Morlacchi has moved around the city, with pencils and her stool, perching on street corners and climbing up to roof-tops to draw and paint Rome with exact detail.  Morlacchi loves the truth of her drawings and never misses a detail– whether it is the weeds growing out of rock walls, yellow flowers growing between roof tiles, traffic signs, cars, and satellite dishes, they are all in her paintings.  As I was interviewing her, she was working on a drawing/painting of the Vatican.  She was perturbed that she had drawn a part of the Apostolic Palace as though it were in the light when she said it was actually shaded by another building.

Marcella Morlacchi working on the shading of the Apostolic Palace on her painting of the Vatican. May, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas
Marcella Morlacchi working on the shading of the Apostolic Palace on her painting of the Vatican. May, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

In 2007, the Ministry of Culture asked Morlacchi to paint water-color views of the city of Rome from on top of the Vittoriano (The Victor Emmanuel Monument).  Her paintings began with the carved female figures on the edge of the building and stretched out past the Coliseum, the Tiber, to the hills of the Castelli Romani.  The paintings are now printed on giant plaques on the roof of the monument and anyone can take the elevator up to the top and see them there today.

Or, if you want, you can come to my home and see the copy she gave to me on the wall.

24 thoughts on “A Morlacchi View of Rome”

  1. Incredible story and an incredible woman. At the beginning of the post I was thinking how one of the paintings would be a lovely souvenir from my holiday (I’m coming to Rome next week woo). Maybe it’s not possible though haha! xxx

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Lucy! She is an incredible woman and you should buy one of her paintings when you are in Rome.

  2. Marie DI Benedetto

    A fascinating portrait of an artist! And as usual a very atmospheric picture of the beauty of Rome which rises above the hellish chaos of every-day life in the traffic.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Marie. I was thinking yesterday about the post and how I was describing the difference between myself and the young, blond thirty-something. Then when I thought about it a little more I realized we had something in common. We were multi-tasking. Women try and do many things and when they are stuck in traffic they multi-task. Whereas the driver of the Range Rover and the truck who cut him off were being rather typically masculine– competing and being aggressive when there wasn’t much point to it since we were all blocked anyway. But yes, it is key to try to detach oneself and enjoy the true beauty of this incredible city.

  3. What a precious gift you have received! If I were the jealous type…I’d be green. Luckily, I’m okay with being happy for you! Enjoy.

    PS. I’m not a big fan of all that mascara either.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Dana. You are sweet to be happy for me. Yeah, Mascara and I don’t really have a good relationship. Ends up everywhere it is not supposed to be. However, I am starting to have a bad relationship with my iphone too. Need to throw it out the car window and “chill” as my kids always tell me.

  4. Great post, Trisha. I love it when you write about art and artists. The painting at the top of the post caught my attention before I started reading, and I was so gratified to learn about Morlacchi. I’ll be in Rome for a week beginning June 13 and would love to see you if there’s time.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Kathryn. I never studied art and am not much of an art expert, but I am discovering that I love learning about art and artists whether current or historic. I will be in Rome all of June and would love to see you when you are here.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Els– yes, just what the doctored ordered for me. A chance to calm down and talk to someone and look at her beautiful paintings rather than being on my iphone all the time. Big hugs to you too. Love, Trisha

  5. Gwen Thomas

    What a lovely story of an absolutely amazing woman. Not only did you receive the gift of her work but it is a gift to be able to have these glimpses into the lives of extraordinaty people. You are truly fortunate.

    I understand too the value of nature for human-kind. We can not live without it even when stuck in Rome traffic. It brings us peace. My question for her is if she has ever drawn natural things. I would imagine her beautiful preciseness and watercolor would transform the Roman pines in an exquisite masterpiece.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      You are right Gwen, one of the greatest joys of being a journalist (and also a blogger) is that I feel I can drop into people’s lives and just start asking them all sorts of personal questions. Marcella Morlacchi had so many fascinating personal stories that I was not able to include in the post — I particularly loved some of the tales of her Police detective father. She was so proud of him, and rightfully so. As far as drawing nature is concerned, as far as I can tell she draws nature only in the context of the city. She spoke with glee about drawing yellow flowers that she found growing out of roof tiles on an old building in the center of Rome and I have also seen some Roman pines and cypresses in her painting. And you are right, she does use the same precision.

  6. Thank you so much! What an informative article. I love these types of posts where I learn some interesting stories of individuals and Rome I would never find on my own. This article made my day. The photos are beautiful. I wish I was there.

    Thank you again

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Maxine, I am so pleased you liked this post. If you read my blog regularly, you probably know I am all over the map, some days writing about personal experiences with my family, some days writing about news stories, some days about historic figures in Italy and some days about artists. I try to figure out which posts are most popular and I was guessing this one wouldn’t be as much of interest to my readers because I thought perhaps one needs to live in Rome to fully appreciate the talents of Marcella Morlacchi. I guess I was wrong. Your comment gives me a boost.

  7. Extraordinary story! What an amazing world, despite the traffic, you live in – and this talented woman has had a rich and varied life, a fine story of a great life for a woman without a husband and children. Her life would have been different, quite different, with them – and also wonderful – but her life is not less, or worse. Her drawings are breathtaking, I especially love the top photo, with that art deco angel (probably older but it looks art deco to me). I hope you did get one of her drawings for your own home, to help you fly to fine imaginings on difficult days. I enjoyed reading this – thanks!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Marcella Morlacchi certainly is an extraordinary woman and has quietly done so much for so many people. First and foremost for her students, but also for the city of Rome. Ever since she explained to me how the buildings should be restored, I’ve been looking around at buildings I pass every day studying the cornices, window frames and base colors and seeing which ones are right and which are not. It is fascinating. A city like Rome desperately needs people like Marcella Morlacchi who has committed her life to observing, drawing and protecting its beauty.

  8. Hi Trisha,
    This is the second artist I’ve learned about from your posts, so thank you. I will look for Morlacchi’s work when I’m in Rome next month. The beginning of your post made me laugh. I had a similar experience just last night as I was driving my daughter home from a volunteer project at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. ~ except without the consolation of those umbrella pines. I did catch a glimpse of Thomas Jefferson as we rounded the Tidal Basin. Not quite the same, but it’ll do.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Domenica. I am not much of an expert on art, but I write about what I like. I would like to write more about some of the famous artists in Italian history. I love learning about their lives. As far as Thomas Jefferson and the Tidal Basin are concerned — isn’t that where all the cherry blossoms are in the spring. Ah, they are gorgeous!

  9. . . such, Trisha Thomas, is life in the slow lane. What a nicely ‘linked-up’ story – a ‘Morlacchi of letters’! :-)

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Alan, you are so funny. I think I could use a much, much slower lane…perhaps I will come visit you and J and explore some back roads in Turkey.

  10. Beautiful creations! I LOVE water color paintings! Not gonna lie, I also found your first few paragraphs highly amusing – c’est la vie in Rome, eh?

    P.s. I will keep your offer in mind – would love to see a copy of the painting Morlacchi gave you on your wall one day! :)

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Pauline — you will always be welcome in my home whether or not see the Morlacchi painting!

  11. What a wonderful post! Your description of traffic made me laugh. It’s the same here in Los Angeles – the congestion, all the different kinds of cars and everyone wanting to get places as fast as they can, frustration building all the while. We, however, do not have such glorious surroundings as you, so there is little to take our minds off the blondes who beep and touch up their make-up.

    This artist is utterly fascinating. I have never heard of her, but I just visited her website, and it is wonderful. Thank you so much for the introduction. It must be a joy to have her work in your home.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I wasn’t sure if my traffic description would bore everyone to tears, but it looks like I might have hit on a common experience. Yes, I agree, I would rather have the Roman pines that a LA highway– but there are other advantages to Los Angeles. Marcella Morlacchi is a talented artist and wonderful person– I had such fun meeting and talking with her.

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