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.
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.
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.
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.
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.